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Harry Hertz


Effective Communication: Try CELL

Caring, explaining, listening, and living

Published: Wednesday, December 23, 2015 - 16:18

During my 25 years with the Baldrige program, I have never come across an organization that couldn’t improve its communication, no matter how good it already is. The importance of effective communication is demonstrated by the many articles and books written on the subject; as examples, Inc., Forbes, and Entrepreneur have all dealt with it. Recently (as a scientist at heart) I’ve been reflecting on the possibility of reducing effective communication to a simple formula or acronym to help a person remember everything that is important.

With an acronym, we frequently are more able to think through important communications in advance and make sure we’re addressing all the considerations for effective communication. The cell phone is probably the most common vehicle for communication today, yet the use of texts and tweets have led to many mishaps in true communication, because of the absence of real-time dialog and sometimes inappropriate brevity. I therefore offer the acronym (not just the instrument) CELL, which stands for caring, explaining, listening, and living.

When I think about communication, I always remember the following story, told to me in the first management course I took. A manager had just lost his job because he couldn’t build an effective, high-performing team. During the transition, he had the opportunity to meet his successor and share with her some of the challenges of the job. He gave her three envelopes, and said he hoped she would never need any of them. Should she ever get into trouble at work, however, they were to be used in sequence.

After two months on the job, she just isn’t gaining any rapport with her direct reports, so she reluctantly decides to open the first envelope. It has a simple message: “Blame your predecessor.” She blames her predecessor, and that helps her break down some walls. But three months later, she can’t get her team to meet quality and productivity goals. She opens the second envelope. Again the communication is clear: “Offer encouragement that things are improving. Compliment the staff.” That works for almost a year, and then there is a complete breakdown within her team. In desperation, she turns to the third envelope, and the message is very clear: “Prepare three envelopes.”

How do we make sure that communication is as clear as those three messages, without having to resort to using the three envelopes? Let’s start with the simple definition I’m using for effective communication: the system by which information is exchanged so that proper actions may be taken with confidence. Effective communication isn’t about the person delivering a message; it’s about the needs of those receiving the message. Again, as per the CELL acronym, I believe effective communication consists of four elements: caring, explaining, listening, and living the role.


Effective communication begins with caring about the way you deliver a message, and caring about the people whom you engage in dialog. Following are some key attributes associated with demonstrating caring and thus establishing a receptive audience for your message:
Keep the message clear and simple. If you are adding a lot of words, ask yourself if you are adding those words to clarify, or to soften and maybe blur the true message.
• Tell stories and share personal experiences. Stories are powerful conveyors of messages and are easier to remember than blunt directives. Talk from the heart and mind, and share information about yourself as part of the message. It makes you human and adds warmth.
• Make communication part of your regular routine. Don’t communicate only when there is a big message to deliver. Familiarity breeds engagement, commitment, and appreciation.
Don’t be a know-it-all. First of all, you don’t know it all. Second, know-it-all attitudes don’t invite questions when there is need for clarification. Finally, know-it-all attitudes certainly don’t result in contributions from your colleagues that could improve ideas and approaches.
• Share credit, give praise, and reward contributions. A simple thank you goes a long way. When something has been done well, recognize the people who made the contribution.
• Use humor and add some fun to interactions. Of course, this depends on the message being delivered. When being lighthearted is appropriate, it will add to the comfort level and enhance buy-in and commitment.
• Be totally present in the interaction. Use body language to show you are fully engaged. Do not look at or answer your cell phone while talking with colleagues. Doing so is a clear signal that others are more important than the people you are engaging.


Effective communication requires explaining your message in language that is appropriate to the audience and that gives all the necessary details:
Use multiple modes of communication for important messages, and repeat the message. Some people receive information best when they hear it; others, when they read it. Some people want both or benefit from repeating the message with different words. Regular repetition of a message and dialog about implementation can emphasize key principles of behavior or operational importance. Two examples of regular repetition come from Robert Galvin and Paul O’Neill. Galvin introduced the world to Six Sigma quality as CEO of Motorola. I have been told that every senior management meeting he led started with a discussion of quality, and that frequently was the only focus of the meeting for him. He knew that all-important business metrics would follow from that focus. Paul O’Neill, as CEO of Alcoa, had a relentless focus on worker safety. At his first meeting with investors, despite flagging financials, he spoke about safety on the job. His focus on safety in interactions with the workforce transformed the culture at Alcoa and resulted in a quintupling of Alcoa’s income during his tenure.
Share vision and goals. No one had doubts about what was important to Galvin and O’Neill (especially when goals are quantitative as in Six Sigma). Their unwavering focus was a powerful communication mechanism for setting context and gaining big-picture buy-in.
Know communication styles. In the Baldrige program, we have used the DiSC assessment tool to help us understand how each person prefers to communicate and receive messages. Accommodating to individual styles builds rapport, improves teamwork, and facilitates interpersonal understanding.
Make sure everyone receives key messages. At two-time Baldrige Award recipient Ritz-Carlton, every shift at every location around the globe starts with a daily lineup. This lineup happens at each hotel and at the corporate offices. It’s a brief get-together with a scripted message from corporate communications that emphasizes an aspect of the company’s Gold Standard, followed by sharing of “wow” stories and important location-specific news. It takes less than 15 minutes and results in everyone being informed and feeling important (“in the know”). At Baldrige Award recipient Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Illinois, each day (seven days a week) starts with a patient safety huddle led by the healthcare organization’s president. The safety huddle builds awareness about what is happening at the frontline and initiates a daily cascaded message through all departments about safety considerations of current importance. Again, it takes less than 20 minutes and sends a powerful message.
Explain why. This is probably the most important component of explaining. If I understand why something is being done, changing, or needs my involvement, I am much more able and willing to assimilate the information and act accordingly to be a positive contributor.


Effective communication requires good listening skills. I believe that listening well is as important as explaining well. Because no one person has a monopoly on good ideas, we all can learn as we listen to questions and complementary ideas. I was once told that knowledge is not gained by flapping your lips, but rather by removing your ear wax:
Managing by walking around is a great process for active listening. Engaging in conversation at a person’s work area makes interaction less formal and more comfortable. It also allows observation of possible workplace challenges and the description of those in a visual context.
Give and get feedback in an informal setting. Feedback is a gift, but only if it’s delivered and received in the spirit of collaboration and continuous improvement. Receiving feedback in a comfortable “place” (your personal work environment) facilitates that spirit.
Listen for what is not being said. This is an often-overlooked aspect of listening. Paying attention to gaps in content may well be a clue to what is actually on someone’s mind but hard or uncomfortable to say. Inviting feedback on the unspoken can be as insightful as listening to volunteered information.

Living the role

Effective communication requires living the values and messages you espouse:
Walk the talk. Once caught in a misstep, regaining confidence in you and your communications is a long uphill climb.
Share good news and bad. People want to hear good news. Trust is built when you also share bad news and don’t withhold information that colleagues need or should have. Loyalty is built through shared adversity, not just celebrating good times.
Don’t lose your temper in public. Although it is fine to display your emotions, taking them out on others hurts relationships. It is said that Abraham Lincoln had an interesting habit. When someone made him angry, rather than lashing out, he sat down and wrote that person a letter. Next, he tore up the letter and developed a more logical and less emotional or visceral response. Today we talk about “counting to 10,” which is a rephrasing of this principle of effective communication.
Admit to your mistakes. As the great philosopher Big Bird once said, “Everyone makes mistakes, so why can’t you?” Admitting to your mistakes makes you more human and therefore increases the effectiveness of other communications.

A parting thought

It is tempting to think of effective communication as the job of leaders, managers, and supervisors. Although it is their job, it is not theirs alone. Effective communication is everyone’s job. It builds trust, teamwork, and high-performing organizations. If culture drives an organization, effective communication is the fuel.


About The Author

Harry Hertz’s picture

Harry Hertz

Harry Hertz retired in June 2013 from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he had served as director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program since 1995. For more than 15 years he was the primary architect of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, responsible for expansion of the Baldrige Program and Award to healthcare, education, and nonprofits, including government. Hertz serves on the advisory group for VHA’s Center for Applied Healthcare Studies, and on the adjunct faculty of American University. He has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, and a Ph.D. from M.I.T.